In my skeptical review of “What The (Bleep) Do We Know!?” I mentioned Candace Pert and her book "Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, and stated “Pert is a talented scientist who went woo woo many years ago for reasons I don’t have time to go into here”. I thought I should explain what I meant.
The title of the book is related to Pert’s claim that short chains of amino acids called peptides, and their receptors, are the "biochemical correlate of emotion." Peptides are found in the brain, but also in the stomach, muscles, glands and all the major organs. Her conclusion is that peptides in these other organs have memories – what she calls “the unconscious mind”. In “What the Bleep” she goes further and claims “each cell has a consciousness”.
I first heard about Pert’s book when a Reiki practitioner I know (what can I say - I live in San Francisco), told me I needed to read it because it was by a scientist who supports alternative "medicine". Apparently she had discovered a cure for AIDS but that somehow this discovery was being repressed. (As an aside, don’t you just love it when woo woos find a scientist who they think supports their beliefs? This is always triumphally presented as “proof” or something that their altie therapies work, although these very same people will parrot “science doesn’t know everything” when confronted with something they don’t like. Hilarious.) I usually find books like this either don’t support the view claimed for them or the science is garbage. This book is in the former category.
But I should start with the good – the science. The book is a great description of the scientific method in action, and really brings the whole process to life. Pert describes how as a PhD candidate, and over objections and even the cancellation of the project by her supervisor Sol Snyder, she discovered the opiate receptor and endorphins - clearly an incredible discovery for someone still completing her PhD. Pert explained the whole process: the theoretical underpinning that initiated the experiments followed by the detailed experiments through to publication. It’s notable that all of Pert's discoveries, and those of all the other scientists described in her book, were achieved using the scientific method, and it seems unlikely they would have been achieved any other way. It also seems clear that Pert is smarter than just about everyone else around her (although remember, she is the one doing the writing).
Unfortunately, after getting her PhD and moving to the NIH, things started to go downhill. First, she learned that Snyder and two other scientists were being given The Lasker Award for discovering the opiate receptor. (Snyder, as Pert’s supervisor, naturally had his name on the opiate receptor papers, and the two other scientists, Hughes and Kosterlitz, had made complementary discoveries about the opiate receptor at around the same time). Naturally Pert felt she should have been included in this award. She was especially angry feeling she was being discriminated against because she was a woman, and she may well have been right. (The name Rosalind Franklin was mentioned.) Pert made enough of a fuss that the story got noticed, although she was still excluded from the award.
Next was the Nobel Prize. A large percentage of Lasker recipients go on to win the Nobel, but the controversy about excluding Pert from the Lasker had cast some doubt over this. Pert was asked to help complete the papers for Snyder, Hughes and Kosterlitz to be nominated for the Nobel Prize (which can only go to a maximum of three people), to smooth things over. When I read the book, at this point I was saying to myself “no, you can’t refuse!” but of course she did. Whether this refusal and the controversy swayed the Nobel committee, no one can be sure, but we do know Snyder didn’t get his Nobel and many people blamed Pert for it. Pert describes the isolation that followed, how she was shunned by former colleagues, and even asked to stay away from scientific conferences. It must have been miserable for her.
There is a huge disconnect between this first section, and the rest of the book. In the first half she discovers the opiate receptors and endorphins using the scientific method. In the second half she still works in science, but also makes numerous unsupported claims about alternative therapies and mind-body connections for no good reason I could see. It’s almost schizophrenic: this second half is full of “I believe” and “what seems to be going” on type statements, instead of hard evidence presented in the first half.
Michael Shermer in his book "Why People Believe in Weird Things" (one of my recommended books), describes why smart people believe in weird things. Smart people believe in weird things because they are very good at defending positions they arrived at through non-smart reasons. It’s an explainable phenomenon. And it’s clear that Pert arrived at her many “alternative” non-scientific beliefs for non-smart reasons. She explains it herself: the rejection by the scientific community was in stark contrast to the welcoming she received from the alternative groups she started to hang out with. Perhaps not surprising she started advocating alternative therapies. And although she makes this connection herself, she misses the obvious conclusion that the altie therapies have no basis in reality.
Just because someone is successful in her own field, this does not mean she is right when she steps out of that area into another. (Twice Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling springs to mind here.) Appearing in “what the bleep” should be viewed as a low point it her career. Funnily enough, I recommend the book. It’s a good read, explains the realities of doing science (the experiments and the politics), and shows the alternative world in sharp contrast. Just don’t expect to have any alternative therapies justified by science.
Incidentally Pert’s Peptide T discovery was found not to be a cure for AIDS, although it did seem like a possibility at one time.